In a previous discussion on astrology I presented W.H. Auden as a convincing though in the end inauthentic Aquarius, whose exact birth date falls not under the sign of the Water Bearer, but that of the Fish, Pisces. Therefore I propose that we butterfly stroke out of these murky waters and try something different.
Let’s undergo astrological rebirth! And what better place to do so than in Aries, the first sign of the zodiac cycle, harbinger of new beginnings. This time around, I would like to consider the Arian qualities of a character or two from literature and the books that begot them. That’s right – I’m asserting in a very Arian way that not only does a literary character possess an astrological sign but that a book does too. I would like to inaugurate this study with a profile of four Arians in literature: Sam Spade, his prototype, Odysseus, and the two books that birthed them, The Maltese Falcon and Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of The Odyssey.
Sam Spade, for those of you who don’t know noir, is the protagonist of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon, published in 1929. From the first page of the book, on which Hammett describes Spade as looking “rather pleasantly like a blond satan,” we know that Spade is a tough, no-nonsense guy with a penchant for trouble, but willing to go to any length to solve a crime, or, in this case, get his hands on the coveted black bird. Odysseus, as you, kind reader, already know, is the great warrior and wanderer who spends much of his adult life overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. I am profiling these characters in tandem because when I read The Maltese Falcon, I couldn’t help recalling Odysseus every time that Sam Spade outsmarts an adversary with his cunning and physical strength. It appears that one has begotten the other.
What makes these characters a pair of Aries? A fire sign, the Arian archetype is the Ram. Those born under the sign of the Ram, according to Steven Forrest, astrologer, “come forth into the world armed with intelligence, vitality, and an instinct for survival.” The Arian is a warrior, a daredevil: courageous, assertive, energetic, competitive and often impulsive. Sam Spade is nothing but courageous, daring, and, as his primary love interest Brigid O’Shaughnessy says time and time again, “altogether unpredictable.” When Joel Cairo, also known as "The Levantine," first visits Spade to solicit his services in recuperating what Cairo calls "an ornament……that has been mislaid," a "black figure of a bird," he holds Spade at gunpoint. Spade barely flinches at the threat: "Spade did not look at the pistol. He raised his arms and, leaning back in his chair, intertwined the fingers of his two hands behind his head." During the crisis Spade, to all appearances, is perfectly at ease. When Cairo pats Spade down to make sure he is not armed, Spade gets the better of the man, striking him in the face with his elbow and rendering him unconscious.
I was reading an article about a messaging test recently completed in Northern Wales with torches in old Iron Age forts, and it made me think about why whales sing when they migrate, and also, about the transitional fossil find that links whales to wolves, The Blessing of the Animals at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and the recent conclusion that Mayan civilization collapsed because of human destruction. This may not be a natural progression to you, but in writing, I like to find connections among things seemingly without correspondence to prove that we can be close and dear, and we can learn something we already learned before.
Last Saturday, 200 volunteers stood at the summits of 10 hillforts on the Clwydian Range in Cheshire, Flintshire and Wirral, Wales, and successfully signaled each other with torches as if in warning to the community. The longest range was 15.5 miles between Burton Point on the Wirral and Maiden Castle, at Bickerton Hill, Cheshire.
I read once--and used in a series of poems--that male humpback whales sing a song that they pass along to each other, phrase by gradually shifting phrase, using repetition and rhyme, until the song ends sounding completely different from when it began, and then they don't sing it again. The marine biologists who had collected this fascinating information not only did not know where the song originated in the whale's anatomy, they also did not know why the males sang it. Blue whales sing while they migrate because the booming song acts likes a sonar mapping device, throwing back into their brains a picture of the ocean floor.
A few transitional fossils link wolves to hippos, camels, deer, whales and dolphins, and while it took 15 million years for the fish eating, whale eared Pakicetus to lose its hind legs and be whale 35 million years ago, the marine ancestor had already hit the water and held its breath. The limbs left because an embryonic gene called the Sonic Hedgehog, which had been miniaturizing the legs perfectly, stopped working. I remember thinking that the dogs that started barking at the recordings of singing humpbacks while jammed into pews at The Cathedral of St John the Divine back in 1992 were undone by such foreign language. Now, I wonder if they were not just becoming chorus to the larger pack?
Dr. Richard D. Hansen, an archaeologist with the Idaho State University has just completed a 30-year study of a pre-classic Mayan civilization on both sides of the Mexico-Guatamala border and concludes that it collapsed because of deforestation and damage to an overburdened agricultural system. I think we can take note of this. I don't want to collapse. Leave the forests. Let the forest leave.
Maybe the whales are not just mapping the ocean floor when they swim, but admiring the familiar view as they go back to the summer waters, the winter mating grounds, thoughtful of their days and nights. Maybe, there were a whole set of signals the Welsh devised to communicate more than warning. Even now, we can't keep to one subject---especially me--so how could the ancients do it?
I leave you with a song by the band, Whales and Wolves, called "What is Wrong".
Writers' Representatives' literary agent Glen Hartley just phoned with the good news that a federal judge in NYC has rejected a deal between Google and lawyers for authors and publishers that would have let the gigantic search engine make money presiding over the world's largest digital library. This is good news for authors! Read more here. Writers' Reps has been on this case since day one. You can read Writers' Reps attorney Lyn Chu's objections to the settlement here.
Last week in London I met with Mark Ford and concurred enthusiastically when he said that a cable TV station dedicated to the New York School would be a good idea. Jenny Quilter would serve as anchor at NYS headquarters and would moderate "Breakfast with James Schuyler" among other shows.
Some programs immediately come to mind as ideal for their time slots. "Lunch Walk" with Frank O'Hara (theme music from Poulenc's "Perpetual Motion"), "Happy Hour" with John Ashbery (theme music from Elliott Carter), and the aforementioned "Breakfast with James Schuyler" with Guests such as Barbara brought to you by Tiptree Gooseberry Preserve. Lewis Saul will compose music specially for the opening and closing credits weaving in fragments from JS's poem "June 30, 1974." Also, we plan to air "Gardening with Jimmy," at 3:30, hosted by Susan Baran and Marc Cohen with visits by C. North, E. Myles, et al, "Morning Prayer" with Anne Porter daily at 7 in lush interiors depicted by her husband, and "Fairfield's Opinions," Sundays at 11 AM, in which, against a backdrop of incredible seascapes, the painter airs his views on subjects ranging from cancer cures to risk-averse investment strategies. Maureen Owen will host "Telephone," with each show devoted to a phone call of note. Bonus feature: the poets' answering machine announcements and selected messages.
The "Harry Mathews Wine Hour," "Looking at Lookiing" with Jane Freilicher, and "Looking at the Dance with Edwin Denby" (hosted by Anne Waldman) are in the works. I have not yet consulted with Ron Padgett to determine whether he will produce and star in "The Tennis Court Coach" in the pilot of which Ron explicates Ashbery's The Tennis Court Oath in relation to the historical events preceding the actual tennis court oath in Paris in 1789.
For "Koch and his Circle," Kenneth Koch and friends will collaborate on poems and act in Koch's plays and skits such as "Keats and His Circle" set in Hampstead Heath in 1819. Harvard and Columbia students will receive course credit for regular viewing.
Larry Rivers and the Climax Band will play sets on weekend evenings at 9:30, 11, and 1 AM. We have been encouraging David Shapiro to bring his violin, Charles North his clarinet, and Larry Fagin his expertise on great girl singers of the Big Band Era, such as Louanne Hogan.
Vincent Katz will host a weekly "Studio Visit" featuring such painters, artists, and collage makers as Trevor Winkfield, Joe Brainard, Alex Katz, Joan Mitchell, the late Nell Blaine, the late George Schneeman, Jim Dine, Darragh Park. New work will be displayed by Star Black, David Shapiro, Susan Wheeler, Marjorie Welish, many others.
James Cummins will executive-produce and serve as chief writer on a brand new series of "PerryMason" courtroom dramas where everyone speaks only in sestinas.
Special consultant: Paul Violi (see his poem "Triptych"). Bureau chiefs: John Tranter in Sydney, Pyotr Sommer in Warsaw, Amy Gerstler in Los Angeles, David Trinidad in Chicago, Alice Notley in Paris, Terence Winch in DC, James Cummins in Cincinnati, Paul Hoover in San Francisco. Denise Duhamel wil report from Miami, Karin Roffman from West Point, Tony Towle from the taxi, and Nin Andrews from the AWP Conference. David Shapiro will be himself. These are just preliminary thoughts. More to come. This is as they say in French a "work in progress." (Like Finnegans Wake.) Suggestions welcome. -- DL
It is highly debatable whether graffiti falls under the definition of today's Wordsmith word "usufruct" but I took this picture this morning and afterwards, saw my word-a-day email. Close enough. From the Latin usus et fructus, use and enjoyment, the definition is "the right to use and enjoy another person's property without destroying it." I like the expression of satisfaction on this face, freshly sprayed on the side of an empty warehouse for sale nearby. I think of drawings I've seen by Ben Shahn, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso with just a few strokes of pen or brush. Last weekend, I saw a team of guys let out of a truck with brooms and rags and watched them fan out and clean, and it could be that the building is now sold, or about to be shown to the first interested buyer in years. I like the face of welcome on the loading dock, although I may be the only appreciative one.
It's hard to imagine the usufruct possibilities. I do think about the houseboats on the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, whose owners do not have docking rights but are renting the spaces in front of properties belonging to others. Citizens of New York are not supposed to be living on their houseboats on the Gowanus, just using them for their enjoyment, and yet, I do think there is a resident ornithologist on one. As long as he or she doesn't fish the canal for supper like the beautiful egret I have seen, or like each year's mallard family, the cormorant, and the occasional swans bored with Prospect Park, I say stay where you are. You help make a polluted canal attractive.
KGB Monday Night Poetry is pleased to present... ourselves!
Laura Cronk, Megin Jimenez + Michael Quattrone
We are having a reading to celebrate Laura winning the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize <http://www.perseabooks.com/poetryprize.php> from Persea Press & to give Michael a proper send-off. He is hosting his final season after 4 years of curating the series & graciously hosting more than 100 poets at KGB Bar. And did we mention its our birthday month?
Monday, March 21
Reading starts at 7:30pm
Admission is FREE
85 East 4th Street * New York, NY 10003 * Phone: 212-505-3360
Laura Cronk's first book of poems won the 2011 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize and will be published by Persea Press in 2012. Poems have appeared in journals and websites such as Barrow Street, Conduit, Ecotone, RealPoetik, and Washington Square Quarterly and in the anthologies Best American Poetry (2006, 2008), Best American Erotic Poems, and The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel. She is an Associate Director of the Writing Program at The New School, where she coordinates the Riggio Honors Program: Writing and Democracy. She co-curates the Monday Night Poetry Series at KGB Bar, founded by David Lehman and Star Black.
Read some of her work in No Tell Motel <http://www.notellmotel.org/poem_single.php?id=85_0_1_0> .
Megin Jimenez's poems have appeared in Barrow Street, La Petite Zine, LIT, Sentence and other journals. A graduate of the New School Writing Program, she co-hosts the Monday Night Poetry series at KGB Bar. She works as a translator at the United Nations and lives in Brooklyn.
Read some of her work at La Petite Zine <http://www.lapetitezine.org/issue_24/megin_jimenez_brought_to_you_by.htm> .
Michael Quattrone is the author of the chapbook Rhinoceroses. His work has appeared in Octopus Magazine, Barrow Street and Jacket, and in the anthologies Best American Erotic Poems and The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel—Second Floor. He is a co-curator of the KGB Monday Night Poetry reading series.
Read some of his poems in Octopus Magazine <http://www.octopusmagazine.com/Issue06/html/poets/michael_quattrone.html> .
Wish you could have made it last week? Get a taste of the doings here. <http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/2011/03/elizabeth-fodaski-edward-hirsch-at-kgb-bar-by-megin-jimenez.html>
Upcoming, Spring 2011...
March 28 Matthew Yeager + David Lehman
April 4 Brian Teare + Jean Valentine
April 11 Matthew Zapruder + Eileen Myles
April 18 Saskia Hamilton + Karl Kirchwey
April 25 Gabrielle Calvocoressi + TK
May 2 Dorothea Lasky, Star Black + David Yezzi
May 9 Angie Estes + Mitch Sisskind
May 16 Dan Chiasson + Deborah Landau
Here are the kaleidoscope windows of The Ethical Society of St. Louis in yesterday's early afternoon light in the midst of a celebration of the late George Hitchcock, editor of an influential literary journal, Kayak, that ran 64 issues from 1964 to 1984. I had many wonderful conversations and eavesdrops at "Kayak at the Confluence" and a funny coincidence in a workshop I taught. My friend, Liz Hughes Wiley, a former student of George's, put together this festival and brought in past contributors, ex-students, friends, an archivist, local actors, and his long-time love to share their experiences, perform his play, revel in the work, and give context to the surrealist editor's singular sensibility and influence on American poetry.
It was also at a festival that welcomed new poets into the fold, and I was there to teach a 16 year old girl and three poets reviving their interests in poetry how to find publishers for their work, and also to sit on a panel of publishers talking about community and individualism in literary magazines. It was funny, then, to be reading a prose poem, "Murder Mystery" by Nick Admussen, to the participants in my class to illustrate the interests of the editors at Epiphany Magazine, and have one of them, Susie Morice, remark that she taught a Nick Admussen in high school maybe 10 years ago who was brilliant and wildly imaginative. I read his contributor's note, which included graduate school at Princeton and current residency in Beijing. That sounds like him, she said, and later, with the help of someone's iPad, brought up a picture that confirmed it. When I choose poems from magazines to read aloud, I am both encapsulating the style interests and inviting poets to discover new voices. This connection was a joy to discover especially in light of Susie's own late blooming as a poet, and one who has a clear command of her own voice.
This week we welcome Amy Holman as our guest blogger. Amy is the author of Wrens Fly Through This Opened Window (Somondoco Press, 2010) and Wait For Me, I'm Gone, which won the 2004 Dream Horse Press annual chapbook prize. She is also the author of An Insider's Guide to Creative Writing Programs (Prentice Hall Press, 2006), a book on colonies, graduate writing programs, and grants. She has written essays on her Brooklyn neighborhood, dogs, subways and knitting, published in tl Connotation Press, and the anthologies, The Subway Chronicles and Knitting Through It: Inspiring Stories for Times of Trouble, and was a columnist for Poets & Writers Magazine. Robert Bly selected her poem Man Script for the Best American Poetry 1999. Amy is a literary consultant who assists writers in finding success in publishing through private tutorials and consultations, and she lectures at conferences, universities and literary centers. You can follow Amy's blog Lending Whale here and her contributions to the blog Whe Who Are About To Die here.
March 14, 2011. Elizabeth Fodaski dips a toe and then takes a nervy leap into work with a personal edge. Nervy for her, I think, because her poems would not be classified as "lyric," but are rather the sort that test out words to see what they could possibly do beside each other. (As in much of her new book, Document: "A palimpsest of fruity horizons harangues the interloper"). She starts with an elegy to her father ("reader, I married him to my memory"), followed by poems from Document. She then reads a kind of minuet on the couple, with the recurring image of a husband's face at the dining room table (place of family meals, sex, arguments, apologies), taking Dickinson's line "I like a look of agony" as its point of departure. The kind of poem, she confesses, that is difficult to return to once written. Language frissons: "shaky custard," "a glass of noise," "your designated tough-guy novel moment."
Edward Hirsch comes with a collection of new and selected, The Living Fire, which spans seven previous books and a life lived in the company of poetry. In contrast, Hirsch's work could serve as the definition of "lyric" (as a category). He, too, begins with an elegy to his father ("Special Orders") and offers a poem that takes a line from Petrarch as its point of departure: "The times my sad heart knew a little sweetness." He describes the summer of being a young poet in New York and writing the first breakthrough poems, ones he knew would stick around, and shares one ("Song"). There's a nervy poem, too, involving breast milk and "a mirrored room off Highway 59" (called "Milk"... that's all I'll say!). And "Green Couch", a kind of ode to the object, a repository of "difficult reading," and the silent witness to the end of a marriage. It ends with the wonderfully simple stanza:
I go back and forth to work.
I walk in the botanical gardens on weekends
and take a narrow green path to the clearing.
Join us next week, March 21, when we co-hosts (Laura Cronk, Megin Jimenez and Michael Quattrone) take over for our own reading. To see the complete Spring 2011 series, click here.
From left to right, back row first: David Lehman, Stuart Bird, Todd Swift, Alison Gibb, Mariel Coen, Amie Caddy; middle row: Robin Thomas, Gillian Petrie, Tiffany Anne Tondut, Kwaku Amaning; front row: Mike Loveday; Kathryn Maris; Beppe Bartoli; Frankie Jones. Photo by Amy Evans.
David and I are in London this week while David spends time with students and faculty at Kingston University. On Monday evening, David and Kingston colleagues Kathryn Maris and host and organizer Todd Swift joined several of their MA/MFA students in a poetry reading before a standing room only crowd at the OXFAM bookstore in London's Marylebone neighborhood. The quality and variety of the poetry was astonishing, with readings of sestinas, centos, poems inspired by facebook updates, poems responding to other poems, and poems of invented forms. Even though there was a full card, the time flew by. As David remarked later, we'll be hearing a lot from these Kingston poets. When the reading concluded, we repaired to the Marylebone pub where H.D. scholar Amy Evans,Kathryn Maris and I had a lively discussion about how the poetry scene in England differs from ours in the U.S. (I'm not saying) and whether H.D. (for whom I share Evans's admiration) is on the verge of a comeback. Watch this space for work from the poets we're getting to know.
Hosted by Laura Cronk, Megin Jimenez and Michael Quattrone
Reading starts at 7:30pm
Admission is FREE
85 East 4th Street * New York, NY 10003 * Phone: <tel:212-505-3360> 212-505-3360 <tel:212-505-3360>
Elizabeth Fodaski is the author of Fracas (Krupskaya, 1999) and Document (Roof Books, 2010). Recent work has appeared in Jacket, The Brooklyn Rail, and Fence. She teaches English at Saint Ann's School in Brooklyn. Read her work in The Brooklyn Rail
Edward Hirsch, a MacArthur Fellow, has recently published The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems, which brings together thirty-five years of poetry from seven previous collections, including For the Sleepwalkers (1981), Wild Gratitude (1986), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Night Parade (1989), Earthly Measures (1994), On Love (1998), Lay Back the Darkness (2003), and Special Orders (2008). He has also written four prose books, including How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry (1999), a national bestseller, and Poet’s Choice (2006). He edits the series “The Writer’s World” (Trinity University Press). He has also edited Theodore Roethke’s Selected Poems (2005) and co-edited The Making of a Sonnet: A Norton Anthology (2008). He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature. He taught in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston for seventeen years and now serves as president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Read his poems at the Poetry Foundation
Upcoming, Spring 2011...
March 21 Hosts take over!: Laura Cronk, Megin Jimenez + Michael Quattrone
March 28 Matthew Yeager + David Lehman
April 4 Brian Teare + Jean Valentine
April 11 Matthew Zapruder + Eileen Myles
April 18 Saskia Hamilton + Karl Kirchwey
April 25 Gabrielle Calvocoressi + TK
May 2 Dorothea Lasky, Star Black + David Yezzi
May 9 Angie Estes + Mitch Sisskind
May 16 Dan Chiasson + Deborah Landau
I wasn't going to succumb to the temptation to editorialize when I accepted David's kind invitation to blog for Best American Poetry this week. The opposite of poetry isn't abstract thought but it is editorializing, and the opinions of poets are dubious mostly because, consciously or unconsciously, they've trained their minds in an antithetical direction. Unfortunately, I can't resist. A lot of people, including many of the demonstrators themselves and sympathizers such as me, were amazed that the sit-ins in Madison were likened, however fugitively, to what happened in Egypt. I recently heard of a perfectly ordinary academic dispute between faculty and administration at a college that, in turn, was being likened to what happened in Madison. And I woke up yesterday to the AFL-CIO's Richard Trumka seriously invoking the condition of working families devastated by the current economy to express solidarity with the NFL's players union (which is why I'm writing this). The larger issue of union-busting aside, is this recourse to similitude, to metaphoric thinking, to hyperbole (a trope poets are particularly partial to), to all those poetic devices that bridge the real and the imaginary politically useful? Or can poetry be politically useful when it is used to create identities where none exist? I'd say no, and I wish there was more rhetorical discipline in the public discourse, for no other reason than to lessen my aesthetic aggravation. And, besides, for metaphors to be useful politically, they have to be too simple to be safe. About his tyrant, Auden says, "and the poetry he invented was easy to understand."
Drilled through the kishkes in ’44
He subsequently worked for
The old Central Electric Company
On Washington Boulevard until
Mr. Achtboim died in 1956.
Then came what Leo and Ruth Manasin
Always called the cow magnet years.
Cow magnets: bits of iron swallowed
By cows to which adhered any
Gum wrappers, bailing wire, nails,
Or what have you that a grazing cow
Might ingest, thereby creating a mass
Of sufficient bulk to travel through
The digestive system of the cow.
It was the brain child of Jim Porter,
A Wisconsin veterinarian who said,
‘I got tired of tramping barnyards
‘On cold mornings to vaccinate hogs
‘At five dollars a shot so I dreamed up
‘The cow magnet. They said I was crazy
‘But with a hundred million cows
‘In America the dairy and beef industries
‘Would pay two bucks per magnet to keep
‘A herd of cows from coming down
‘With the so-called Hardware Disease.’
Not long after Mr. Achtboim passed away,
Steve Drago introduced Jim Porter
To Leo Manasin at Nippersink Manor.
At that time a sort of black cloud seemed
To hover over Leo Manasin’s head.
Although Mr. Achtboim was no saint,
He was the pater familias that Leo Manasin
Needed in the post-war years when lingering
Effects of his wounds imbued every moment
With a vague unconscious sense of dread.
Now this man Jim Porter entered the picture.
Here was a new pater familias, possibly
An improved version of Mr. Achtboim,
Who offered Leo Manasin the position
Of cow magnet sales rep for the Wisconsin,
Illinois, and Indiana territories in which
Resided tens of thousands of cows.
But Leo Manasin hesitated. He ruminated.
He looked skeptically at a future in which
He would call on dairy farmers with
A satchel of cow magnets in his lap while
Over a blue propane flame water boiled
For instant coffee in farmhouse kitchens
Of stained linoleum and peeling wallpaper.
He was a city boy after all, a Jewish fella
Whose occasional exposure to anti-Semitism
Made him leery of many (not all) goyim.
Jim Porter seemed like an honest goy,
And now Jim Porter allayed Leo Manasin’s
Fears about the future with some simple
Truths about the cow magnet business.
As the veterinarian explained, most magnets
Were bought in bulk by feed company
Executives over lunch in the grill room of
The Cliff Dwellers Club where past members
Included Cyrus McCormick, George Armour,
And Rufus C. Dawes, and not bought by farmers
With a load of manure out in the dump truck.
This mollified Leo Manasin and he was soon
Turning heads in the cow magnet industry.
Sales of a hundred or two hundred gross
Were run of the mill for Leo Manasin
In the grill room of the Cliff Dwellers Club
And it was there that he met Chester Schultz,
The heir to a milking machine fortune.
Chester Shultz shrewdly took the measure
Of this family man named Leo Manasin,
This war veteran who sold cow magnets
For a living and -- liking what he saw --
Chester Schultz took Leo Manasin under
His wing and began making discreet
Overtures to Leo Manasin about a job.
These discreet overtures, these coy hints,
The innuendoes, the asides, the ingratiating
Small confidences, the verbal nosegays,
The divertimenti – they also had a deeper
Purpose, a much more sober intention.
The discreet overtures were the foundation
For the hiring of Leo Manasin by Chester Schultz.
It was a very nice employment package that
Chester Schultz offered with substantially
Larger revenues to Leo Manasin in exchange
For less work -- because once milking machines
Were leased out there was nothing to do
Except deposit the checks which would represent
Leo Manasin’s salary plus a generous commission.
And since milking machine leases were always
Rolled over, Leo Manasin could be set for life!
A home in Lincolnwood on a double lot,
A Buick, an Olds, or even a Cadillac convertible
In the garage; a country club membership;
And a summer house in Sauganash, Michigan;
All this was possible with Chester Schultz!
Only one small matter remained: Jim Porter
Must be told of Leo Manasin’s decision to forsake
His pater familias and cleave to this wealthier
Man named Chester Schultz, this man whom
Leo Manasin met at the very Cliff Dwellers Club
Where Jim Porter was footing the bill for
Leo Mansain’s lunches of broiled whitefish.
But then occurred one of the eerie
Turning points that we encounter in life,
One of the head-scratching moments
In which our decisions seem to be made
By some external agency and we can only
Look back on the decisions as they fade
In the rearview mirror of our years
Like a roadside restaurant where we ate
Something but what exactly did we eat?
This eerie turning point in Leo Manasin’s life
Occurred at the bar mitzvah of his son Mickey
At Temple B’nai Zion on Pratt Avenue
Where Leo Manasin had naches – that is, pride
In his child –as he made small talk with Jim Porter.
This was in the hospitality room where,
After the ceremony, cold cuts were being served.
There Leo Manasin felt an unexpected surge
Of emotion, a cresting wave of affection
For the man named Jim Porter, and all at once
It seemed unimaginable to Leo Manasin that
He could ever disassociate himself from Jim Porter.
What caused the unexpected surge of emotion?
First, it was Jim Porter attending the bar mitzvah
And also the sight of Jim Porter wearing a kippah,
A yarmulke. In fact, the sight of Jim Porter wearing
A kippah was a great honor to the Manasin family
As a whole: to Leo, Ruth, Mickey, and Melissa,
Who was also known as Missy or Lissie.
The remarkable thing was how comfortable,
How relaxed Jim Porter looked, as if he’d
Worn a kippah all his life. Whereupon
It occurred to Leo Manasin that perhaps
The veterinarian could convert to Judaism.
There could be bar mitzvah for Jim Porter
And if necessary he could be circumcised..
What a mitzvah it would be for Leo Manasin
To bring about the conversion of Jim Porter
To Judaism! The thought of Jim Porter reciting
The sh’ma almost brought tears to the eyes
Of Leo Manasin -- and Jim Porter also seemed
Sensitive to the moment. He spoke not a word
But put his hand on Leo Manasin’s shoulder
And guided Leo Manasin toward a quiet
Corner of the B’nai Zion hospitality room.
There in a voice charged with feeling,
Jim Porter said to Leo Manasin, ‘Leo,
‘I want you to know that come what may
‘In the cow magnet business, regardless of
‘What happens in the cow magnet business,
‘No matter what may or may not occur
‘In the cow magnet business, good or bad,
‘You and your family will be taken care of
‘Forever because of the hard work and
‘Loyalty you’ve given to the organization
‘Since that day at Nippersink Manor when
‘We were introduced by Steve Drago.’
Late that night, after the gala celebration
In the Hyatt at 4500 West Touhy Avenue,
After all the singing and all the dancing
And the many clever toasts, Leo Manasin
Lay awake as a voluptuous sense of relief
Washed over him, subsuming even his
Naches about Mickey Manasin’s bar mitzvah.
The phrase ‘dodged a bullet’ occurred
To this man who’d been drilled through
The kishkes in ’44. He saw that a personal
And professional catastrophe had nearly
Happened when he came so close
To deserting Jim Porter, that mensch,
By going to work for Chester Schultz.
What a mess that would have made.
What a train wreck it would have been.
It would have been like a twelve car pileup
On the interstate during the rush hour.
It shouldn’t happen to a dog, and fortunately
It didn’t happen. Willy-nilly, Leo Manasin
Had made the right decision in the end.
So the cow magnet years continued and
To his credit Chester Schultz took no
Offense at what for him was the very
Unaccustomed experience of a rejected
Job offer. Leo Manasin and Chester Schultz
Even took steam together occasionally
In the Cliff Dwellers Club steam room.
And Jim Porter’s conversion to Judaism?
Leo Manasin now saw it as a hare-brained
Scheme, heart-felt and well-intentioned,
But brought on by the emotional turmoil
In which Leo Manasin found himself that day
Amid the bar mitzvah’s hugger-mugger and
The hurly-burly of the Chester Schultz affair.
No, Leo Manasin was not leading the most
Exciting life but as long as there were
Cows there would be cow magnets
And for that he had Jim Porter to thank.
‘Leo, come what may,’ Jim Porter had said,
‘You will be taken care of -- you and Ruth
‘And Mickey and little Melissa Manasin.’
But ‘always’ is such a long time
About which to make promises --
And must not ‘always’ always end?
One day Leo Manasin arrived
At the modest downtown office
Maintained by Jim Porter and
Found two men waiting at the door.
Since Leo Manasin had come downtown
To meet a couple of buyers from the
William M. Glass Company, he asked,
‘Are you the guys from William M. Glass?’
They said, ‘No, we are the guys from
‘The Internal Revenue Service but
‘You may call it the IRS if you prefer.’
Thus concluded the cow magnet years
And thus did ‘always’ come to an end.
It was not for lack of effort on
Jim Porter’s part but understanding
The digestive system of a cow is not like
Running a business where the damn
Complexities can make your head spin.
It did not happen all at once. For weeks,
Months, almost a year the cow magnet
Business stayed more or less afloat but
What with judgments and liens and even
The possibility of a criminal case against
Jim Porter brewing, Leo Manasin saw
That the party was over once and for all.
Nights Leo Manasin lay awake kicking
Himself, asking himself why, why, why?
The image of Chester Shultz appeared
Like a ghost in the darkness, mocking him,
Making faces at him and tossing money
Into the air or feeding it to some obnoxious
Animal – a cow? – that he’d brought along.
Mornings Leo Manasin was agitated,
Irritable, he couldn’t sit still to read
The newspaper, yet at the same time
He was exhausted and often fell asleep
In front of the television set. He snapped
At people for no reason but he also wept
Uncontrollably in the laundry room
Where, pathetically, the washing machine
Drowned out his sobs. This was a far blacker
Cloud than the cloud that hovered over
Leo Manasin’s head when Mr. Achtboim died.
This cloud rapidly descended and engulfed
Leo Manasin until he became invisible
To his own family in his own home.
Meanwhile Mickey Manasin became obsessed
With motorcycles, literalizing his desire
To escape the Manasin family’s dismal
Twenty-eight hundred square foot home
In favor of the open horizons celebrated
In the Bob Seger anthem ‘Against the Wind’
Which he kept blaring in the garage all day.
Melissa Manasin was now called Mel.
Missy? Lissie? Are you kidding me?
At seventeen Mel radiated a hard,
Wised-up sexuality that scared away
The high school boys, so she blew off school
And worked downtown at the Furniture Mart
Where at least a few guys knew how to fuck.
As for Ruth Manasin, she mourned her life’s
Reduced circumstances, a life now sustained by
Social security and the savings accounts which,
Thank God, she had insisted on opening during
The cow magnet years. As Ruth mourned,
She saw too how Leo Manasin was suffering,
Was deteriorating, was no longer the same man.
Money alone could not account for his misery,
Ruth Manasin concluded. The black cloud that
Now engulfed Leo Manasin seemed like it had
Always been there and always would be there.
Cow magnets, aging, even disappointment
In the children could not begin to explain what
Ruth Manasin observed each day in Leo Manasin.
He lay on the sofa, defeated and deflated,
In boxer shorts and undershirt. By the way,
He’d lost a leg to diabetes. His snoring briefly
Seemed louder as Ruth Manasin turned off
The television set, but then came a diminuendo
In the snoring until there was only the low
Rumble of the refrigerator motor in the kitchen.
Perhaps we haven’t really gotten to know
Ruth -- but a favorite expression of hers was
‘I have news for you’ and another was
‘Let’s call a spade a spade.’ In that spirit
(Though it broke her heart) she now saw
Leo Manasin as a lovable schmuck,
A putz, a wounded veteran whose wounds
Never really had a chance to heal before he went
To work for the old Central Electric Company
And found a pater familias in Elmer Achtboim
And then another pater familias in Jim Porter.
But essentially he was a tearful little boy
Desperately looking for someone to protect him
Which caused him to make a really terrible
Business decision about Chester Schultz.
Though he had been a good provider in the
Cow magnet years, she felt that Leo Manasin
Had let his heart get in the way of his head
About Jim Porter. Then it went all belly up.
She loved Leo Manasin but she mainly felt sorry
For him like on All My Children or One Life to Live.
As Leo Manasin opened his eyes Ruth loomed
Above him, upside down from his viewpoint
But an angelic vision of a benevolent old woman.
Could this be his grandmother, whom he had
Called the Buba? Then came a cresting wave
Of emotion like that other cresting wave
At the bar mitzvah when Jim Porter had said,
‘Leo, you will always be taken care of.’
How loved he had felt then and also now,
With the TV off, the thankless children gone.
As is our destiny at the moment of death
He was changed into a great tzaddik
Who reveals himself at last, and at last
Is to himself revealed. ‘Sh’ma Yisrael…’
With his final breath he proclaimed the sh’ma!
No mitzvah is greater than this one! Thus did
Rav Shimon bar Yochai depart this life
And thus did Leo Manasin also depart it!
‘Sh'ma Yis'ra'eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad!’
His soul swept past the Heavenly Tribunal
And was received at once in the Upper Worlds!
For my final post as Guest Blogger (thanks again for having me, Stacey! & thanks for reading, friends), I wanted to say a few words about the crew that I’m so unbelievably fortunate to work with on Agriculture Reader / X-ing Books-related matters. My eternal gratitude goes out to each of them for all of their unique talents so industriously applied to things I care so deeply about.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.